It’s a bad sign when multiple bits in a given Saturday Night Live episode lean on the host’s accent. This proved true, at least, with the sketch comedy’s second episode of 2019, a middling hour and a half (not unlike the one that preceded it) hosted by a consistent, very game (and, the show made sure to remind, very Scottish) James McAvoy. In between the disappointing comedy, Meek Mill turned in a pair of strong musical performances.
The news cycle is never quite slow anymore, but the past week should have given SNL tons of material for its political satire. Unfortunately, this cold open is more of the same, with Alex Moffat’s fairly dull Tucker Carlson taking us through the motions of the week’s events via a series of guests: Cecily Strong’s Jeanine Pirro railed against immigrants (“We have to take a Marie Kondo approach to cleaning up this country: If something doesn’t spark joy, throw it out!”), 15-time SNL host Steve Martin cameoed as the recently indicted Roger Stone, a “normal and straightforward guy” played gleefully by the comic as anything but; and, in another character debut, Kate McKinnon gave us her take on Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who during the government shutdown stalemate made a series of insensitive comments toward federal workers while defending his administration. Safe to say SNL only amped that up. One thing’s for sure: There seems to be no man in Trump’s orbit who McKinnon can’t ingeniously parody.
This had to be one of the shorter opening monologues I’ve heard on SNL in a while. The immensely gifted McAvoy was a great choice for the hosting gig: He’s proven to be skilled with comedy over the years, and the sheer amount of personalities he’s played in Split and Glass demonstrates range. But here he was relegated to some light, gentle humor about his Scottish accent, and how people might mix him up with Ewan McGregor. Glass wasn’t even covered, despite its success. Points for McAvoy’s fabulous kilt, though.
Best Sketch: “The U.E.S.”
Oh, Leslie Jones — when she’s working with good material, there’s nobody who brings more joy to SNL these days. And this is one of the best digital shorts she’s done to date, easily scoring as the episode’s highlight. It’s a music video in which Jones raps about “moving on up,” Jeffersons-style, from the likes of Compton and Bed-Stuy to New York’s Upper East Side. It’s a terrifically funny skewering of the Manhattan neighborhood, and just plain fun to watch Jones tour her new digs, utterly delighted by the local bakeries and brand-new subway station (enough of an argument to make the move, really), and bemused by its squarer attributes. “I thought that by 50 I’d be broke or dead,” goes one verse. “Now I’m a lady from Compton in line for fresh bread.” There’s something to celebrate. (Seriously, that bread looked damn good.)
Again, lots for Colin Jost and Michael Che to cover this week. And cover they did, starting with the end of the government shutdown and Donald Trump’s inability to strike a deal with funding for a border wall. Jost got plenty of jabs in about the president’s political loss here (“You know you’re failing as a president when you’ve somehow made LaGuardia worse”), but Che cautioned Trump’s opponents from getting too giddy. “The man is still one tweet away from calling a national state of emergency and bringing back slavery,” he said.
As for who joined Jost and Che on the Weekend Update desk this week, Chris Redd made a funny if forgettable appearance as Soulja Boy, tasked to speak (unsuccessfully) about the goings-on in Washington, while Cecily Strong once more reprised her Cathy Anne character. I still find the performance stupidly hilarious: Strong’s delivery of “Trump wants that wall so bad you’d think it was made of crack” had me cackling.
Worst Sketch: “Return to Narnia”
None of the sketches this week outright bombed, but several failed to take off, running on fumes after just a few minutes. And I’ll give credit to the Charmin focus group bit, which arguably featured McAvoy’s performance, even if it otherwise was probably my least favorite. Overall, “Return to Narnia” was built on a promising foundation: three contemporary young women finding Mr. Tumnus deep in Narnia and revealing that they’re deeply attracted to him. But the execution proves thin and limiting. McAvoy has nothing really to play; Strong stars opposite a wasted Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. References to “goat peen” prove, erm, lacking, and the final revelation that Tumnus is gay feels random, one of those cases where the sketch doesn’t seem to know how to end. At least we get the line, “Mr. Tumnus, I want to put my thumbnus in your bumbness.”
Halsey will do double duty on the Feb. 9 episode, hosting and serving as musical guest.